Mushrooms, nuts, quinoa: Vegan sprouts from Michigan’s meat market

Andrew Maternowski comes from a family of butchers.

Both of his grandfathers wholesaled smoked sausages to northern Indiana butcher shops before passing the business on to his uncles. But Maternowski went in a slightly different direction.

He makes and sells vegan meat.

“We just started with different ingredients,” he said. “There was some nut stuff and we went for it.”

Maternowski and his wife Monica Randles, both retired doctors, are the duo behind Nutcase Vegan Meats, based in the Grand Rapids area.

Ancient doctors began experimenting with plant-based meats after cutting animal meat from their diets 12 years ago and noticing improvements in their health. Maternowski used a small blender, which now sits like a trophy on a shelf at Nutcase Vegan’s headquarters, to make his first meatless chorizo.

“I think we were just trying to do something that tasted good. So, we did walnuts, brown rice, quinoa, flax seeds — it all kind of came together,” he said.

Nutcase Vegan Meats owners Monica Randles and Andrew Maternowski pose for a portrait outside their company’s headquarters in Kent County, Mich., Thursday, Aug. 29, 2022. . (Joel Bissell | Bissell |

Inspired by their time in Texas, Maternowski and Randles seasoned their new plant-based chorizo ​​with the same 23 spices as a traditional meat recipe. After several years of trial and error, they launched Nutcase Vegan Meats in 2016.

The certified organic whole foods company now makes seven products, including award-winning nut bread, priced around $10 a pound, burgers and breakfast sausages for customers looking for alternatives to meat. They are sold in about 20 stores across Michigan and are heading for national distribution.

Nutcase Vegan is one of many Michigan companies tapping into a growing meatless meat market.

“It’s less than just a tolerance and more an appreciation for eating well and always being conscientious — for whatever reason — not to eat any animal product,” Randles said.

As meat-mimicking products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have been rolled out to fast-food chains and grocery stores in recent years, familiarity with vegan meat has grown. About two-thirds of Americans said they consumed plant-based meat products in the past year, according to a survey by the International Food Information Council, compared with four in 10 in a 2020 Gallup poll.

“I think there’s widespread curiosity about other ways to enjoy food without eating meat,” said Dominique Da’Cruz, owner of Mushroom Angel in Detroit.

Cruz Burgers

Wendy Ekua Da’Cruz and Dominique Da’Cruz created their first mushroom-based Cruz Burger in 2020. They have since launched Mushroom Angel, a plant-based food company that uses mushrooms as their main ingredient. (Photo courtesy of Chuk Nowak)

Da’Cruz and his wife Wendy began experimenting with mushrooms as a meat alternative after going on a spiritual fast and becoming full-time vegans two years ago. They toyed with different recipes during the Spring 2020 pandemic shutdown, and the Cruz Burger was born.

(Although their youngest of three children is known as the “original Cruz Burger” because Wendy Ekua Da’Cruz says “she was in my belly when we were cooking all that.”)

That summer, about a thousand people tasted the plant-based burger “developed” by the Da’Cruz family. It’s a mushroom patty that they say bites like meat but tastes like a vegetable. It is sold in stores in and around Detroit as well as Lansing and Grand Rapids for around $9 for two 4-ounce packages.

“We say it’s an old school veggie burger with a new school flavor,” Wendy Ekua Da’Cruz said. “We are not looking to duplicate or reproduce the meat. We’re just looking to give you a better veggie burger experience where it doesn’t follow a pattern or feel slimy. And that’s where we’ve won over consumers who may be meat lovers or plant-based.

Related: Vegan or not, the TLT tempeh wrap at Ann Arbor’s Seva is a must.

Plant-based foods are a $7.4 billion market in the United States.

Sales of all plant-based foods grew last year at a rate three times faster than total food retail sales, the Global Food Institute reported. Meanwhile, U.S. plant-based meat sales have risen 74% in three years to $1.4 billion, with Michigan-based Morningstar Farms, formerly a Kellogg brand, holding the largest share of the market.

Driven by consumer demand, the Global Food Institute says food companies have launched hundreds of new plant-based products in recent years.

One of them is Detroit Jerky.

Even though Scott Eatmon quit eating meat eight years ago, he still missed the salty taste of beef jerky.

“I’ve tried a few other plant-based jerkies from other manufacturers here in the US and have never been really impressed,” he said. “So, I just decided to do my own at home.”

jerky strait

Katie and Scott Eatmon run Detroit Jerky, a vegan jerky company. Eatmon started eating vegan eight years ago out of concern for animal cruelty and climate change. (Photo provided by Scott Eatmon)

Using soy protein for the jerky, Eatmon spent time creating the right blend of flavors. It then launched Detroit Jerky with four products – Michigan Cherry Bomb, Mojito Inferno, Hickory Cracked Pepper and Buffalo Burn – in September 2020.

Sales took off.

Detroit Jerky is now sold in about three dozen stores in southeast Michigan and northern Ohio. On its website, the cost is around $7 for a 3-ounce pack.

Most of Eatmon’s loyal customers are meat eaters.

“Having something similar in texture and flavor to what you’re used to makes the transition to something a little healthier a lot easier and a less daunting experience,” he says.

Health is one of the main reasons people reduce their meat consumption.

A 2020 Gallup poll found that 23% of Americans are eating less meat, with nine in 10 reporting health issues as a factor.

Related: Michigan’s Best Local Eats: Stella’s Lounge launches new vegetarian and vegan menu

Research shows that vegetarians eat less fat, weigh less, and have a lower risk of heart disease than those who eat meat. But Mayo Clinic experts say even reducing meat consumption has a “protective effect” with those who eat red meat facing a higher risk of heart disease, stroke or diabetes.

For Nutcase Vegan, health is part of the mission.

“When we started this thing, there was very little there, and there’s still no medical program. The healthiest, proven diet is a whole, plant-based diet,” Maternowski said. “The people who live the longest and have the fewest chronic medical problems are the ones on this diet.”

The environment is another big reason some are turning to meat alternatives.

Animal agriculture accounts for nearly 15% of global emissions, with dairy and beef cattle leading the pack. If all meat and dairy production were phased out over the next 15 years, according to a recent study by PLOS Climate, it would offset two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions this century.

Eatmon believes that more people realizing meat’s impact on climate change has led to the rise of the plant-based food industry.

“A lot of people care about that part,” he said. “A lot of people just want something a little healthier. And with those two things combined, herbal products are just perfect for that.

Although meat alternatives have exploded in recent years, there are some early signs of slowing demand.

Sales of chilled plant-based meat fell at the end of last year, down 4.3% from December 2020. Despite the slowdown, overall sales are still up nearly 90% from last year. three years ago, according to market research firm IRI.

But Michigan business owners are optimistic about the market.

Eatmon thinks there’s a thriving vegan scene in Detroit, where people are “very passionate” and creative with food. And the Da’Cruz family agrees.

“We like to say that if we can make cars in Detroit, we can also make healthy food,” said Dominique Da’Cruz.

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